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Man Charged in Bombing of New York Skyscrapers

By Malcolm Gladwell
The Washington Post

NEW YORK

Federal agents Thursday charged a Jordanian-born man living in Jersey City, identified as Mohammed A. Salameh, with involvement in last Friday's bombing of the World Trade Center.

Salameh was arrested in Jersey City Thursday morning after investigators determined that a van he had rented "on or about" Feb. 23 had carried the bomb. He was brought to federal court in Manhattan this evening and charged with "aiding and abetting" the destruction of the World Trade Center complex Friday "by use of an explosive device causing the death of at least five individuals."

According to the complaint read during the hearing, investigators Thursday searched the Jersey City address Salameh gave on the rental agreement and found "tools, wires, circuitry, electromagnetic devices" as well as explosives residue.

A slight, bearded man who was dressed in a gray sweatsuit, Salameh did not speak during the proceedings, which were translated for him into Arabic. Robert Precht, a federal public defender representing Salameh, said the suspect, who was born in Jordan, had declared himself "completely innocent of the charges." A bail request was denied.

No details were given at the hearing about Salameh's possible motives. But a senior law enforcement official, who asked not to be identified, said that "this has all the appearances of being a terrorist act."

The official said that investigators believe the bombing may have been connected to the second anniversary of Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait at the end of the Persian Gulf War, and speculated that Salameh was a "surrogate" for others connected with Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

At a news conference in Washington, acting Attorney General Stuart M. Gerson hinted that more arrests may be forthcoming. "It's a remarkable day in the history of the FBI," Gerson said.

The unexpected developments Thursday, which come after a week in which police and federal agents repeatedly expressed pessimism about the early solution of the case, stem from what investigators said was a series of fortunate and unlikely developments.

According to the documents filed by the FBI at the hearing Thursday, Salameh rented a Ford Econoline Van in his own name from a Ryder truck rental agency in Jersey City at some point during the week of the bombing. Several hours after the noontime explosion Friday, he returned to the agency and reported that the van had been stolen.

On Tuesday or Wednesday this week, investigators sifting through the rubble in the parking garage under the World Trade Center found fragments of a vehicle with an identification number corresponding to the number of the missing van, which had been listed in a nationwide computer directory of stolen vehicles. From the position and appearance of the pieces, they strongly suspect that the fragment had come from the vehicle that carried the bomb.

The FBI said that their suspicion that Salameh was involved was confirmed when they examined the rental documents that he handed over the Ryder clerk when he first reported the van was stolen last Friday. They were covered with traces of the chemical nitrates, which is common to many explosives.

Thursday morning, Salameh returned to the agency with police documents confirming that he had reported the vehicle stolen, and asked for return of the $400 deposit he had placed on the vehicle when he rented it. As he left the agency, he was arrested by police.

Asked why, if he is guilty, Salameh would have been no naive as to rent the truck in his own name, report it stolen to the agency and the police, and return twice to the agency to attempt to retrieve his deposit, the senior law enforcement official said: "Who knows. Just because he's a terrorist, doesn't mean he's a brain surgeon. ... Call it good investigating."

The FBI complaint read Thursday night in court said that Salameh had provided a telephone number "in connection with the rental agreement" that was traced to a person named Josie Hadas, at a Jersey City address. A search of the Hadas apartment Thursday afternoon had discovered "among other things, a letter addressed to the defendant, tools and wiring, and manuals concerning antennae, circuitry and electromagnetic devices.

"A law enforcement officer trained as a bomb technician has examined these materials," the FBI said, "and concluded that they constitute evidence of a `bomb maker' at the location. Lastly, a dog trained in the detection of explosives responded positively to a closet space within the apartment."

As of Thursday evening, police had released few details about what several law enforcement sources said they believe to be Salameh's ties to radical Islamic fundamentalists.

One hint, however, came from the fact that the FBI also Thursday searched the Brooklyn apartment of Ibrahim Elbrawgone, the brother of El-Sayyid A. Nosair, the 37-year-old Egyptian-born Arab American accused and subsequently acquitted in 1991 of shooting Zionist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Nosair is in prison, having been convicted of weapons charges and assault in connection with the Kahane killing.

Elbrawgone was also arrested Thursday after allegedly hitting an FBI agent during the search.

Nosair attended the Jersey City mosque headed by radical Islamic cleric Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, who has been living in exile in New Jersey for the past two years. Rahman was acquitted in Egyptian court of involvement in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. He has been under investigation by U.S. law enforcement officials for possible involvement in a number of crimes, including the shooting of a Brooklyn man and the 1990 killing of Kahane. U.S. immigration officials confirmed that in 1991 they took action to expel Rahman from the country, but said the proceedings are still pending before an immigration judge.

According to some media reports, Salameh, like Nosair, attended Rahman's Jersey City mosque.

The federal official said Salameh was "not unknown" to the FBI.

Michael Warren, who was Nosair's attorney and who identified himself as representing Nosair's brother, denied any connection yesterday between his client and Salameh.

"A whole lot of innocent people are getting dragged into this," Warren said. "It's a thinly veiled disguise on the part of the FBI to make a scapegoat of people who are simply practicing religious individuals."

Thursday's arrest was an dramatic development in the bomb investigation, which federal agents had publicly said they believed could drag on for months.

The blast, which killed five and injured more than 1,000, was so powerful that it destabilized the entire area around the site of the explosion, meaning that investigators had not yet begun the kind of intensive examination of the bomb site that usually is necessary to yield important clues.

In the case of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland 4{ years ago, for example, it was not until four months after they began sifting through the wreckage of the plane that investigators found a tiny electronic component that enabled them to definitively link the bomb to Libyan terrorists.